Since the demonstrations against cuts in higher education funding on Wednesday 24 November there has been much discussion of the possibility that the Metropolitan Police deliberately left one of their vans in the path of student demonstrators in London in the hope of provoking them to acts of destruction.
Much of this discussion makes reference to video footage from Sky News that shows protestors milling around the van prior to the police containment of the demonstration, rather than the supposedly intimidating situation that led the Met to state that they had abandoned the van because ‘officers felt threatened’. Two key explanations given for this possible police tactic are, first, that the van was left in the hope that demonstrators would attack it and thus provide an alibi for the ‘kettling’ of the demonstration and, second, that the van was left so that more images of student ‘violence’ could be generated to delegitimize the student cause. Both of these explanations may be true, though it is the latter that is of particular interest for it suggests that the police are developing a strategy towards popular dissent that involves the appropriation and reconfiguration of tactics developed by political activists since the 1960s. Such tactics have involved popular movements using the media to their advantage against powerful opponents who are prone to violence.
I am thinking specifically here of the Southern Christian Leadership’s (SCLC) approach to their civil rights campaign in Birmingham Alabama in April 1963 when they put demonstrators on the streets, including large numbers of school children in the expectation that the Commissioner of Public Safety ‘Bull’ Conner would respond with violence that would make powerful images in the press and on the TV news. Scenes of the Birmingham police setting dogs onto peaceful protestors and the local fire brigade turning their fire hoses on children shocked liberal America and were powerful contributors to subsequent change.
The SCLC staged the police violence by ‘baiting’ Commissioner Connor, who provided the final element to the political ‘dramaturgy’. Thus the civil rights activists set in motion a chain of actions on the part of different agents that led to the generation of images of violence that served their purpose (see Simon Cottle, Mediatized Conflict, 2006). Their aim was not only to make the civil rights struggle highly visible on the national and international stage, but also to draw out the violence that they saw as inherent within the system of segregation. The spectacular violence of the confrontations in Birmingham thus stood-in-for and made visible the ‘systemic violence’ of a social order that discriminated against African-Americans in every area of social life.
We might also consider contemporary Palestinian practices of peaceful resistance, in particular in the West Bank village of Bil’in. I have written about this subject before, but it is worth revisiting because the Popular Committee in Bil’in often organized dramatic demonstrations that require the Israeli army to contribute a violent finale. Earlier this year, after the storming of the Free Gaza Flotilla, people in Bil’in constructed a mock ship on a car that was driven from the village to the West Bank Barrier where it was stormed by Israeli soldiers, thus restaging the attack on the flotilla and completing the demonstrator’s performance with actual violence.
More recently activists in Bil’in responded to the Eden Abergil Facebook picture scandal by staging their own captivity using handcuffs and blindfolds in front of a line of Israeli soldiers. After a while the soldiers reacted by dragging one of the handcuffed and blindfolded demonstrators off, transforming mock captivity into real captivity. Both of these actions were intended to lead to the generation of images and to make visible the often ‘withheld’ and non-spectacular violence that defines the Palestinian experience of the Israeli occupation (see Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, ‘The Order of Violence’, in Ophir, Givoni, and Hanafi, eds., The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Territories, Zone, 2009).
The Metropolitan Police are hardly the same as a popular movement, yet the apparent planting of the police van suggests that they too are interested in creating dramatic scenarios in which their opponents act out forms of violence before the cameras of the media. Here we have a state institution taking a ‘weapon of the weak’ often used by those opposed to the power of the state and using it against non-state based political agents. In this sense what we might be seeing is a kind of ‘rerouting’ of dissident media tactics in the service of police and state power. As with the actions of the SCLC and the Bil’in Popular Committee, this involves three different sets of actors: those who stage the event, those who respond to the staging, and those who visualize it. We can think about the student demonstrations themselves in these terms, with the students staging an event, the police responding to their actions, and the media reporting on the proceedings. However the student demonstrations have not been staged to provoke the police to violence, nor was the police violence that did happen properly reported in the media. What has taken center stage both on Wednesday 24 November and Wednesday 10 November is student acts of destruction that have been framed as violent thuggery. This suggests that the political dramaturgy staged by the police has been successful in its aims.
However we should not be quick to assume this. Violence staged by a state institution is different from that which is staged by opponents of the state. These different forms of staged violence have different meanings. The former involves an attempt to frame opponents of state or governmental policy as representatives of a disorder that threatens democracy and the public interest. But the latter can carry a far greater symbolic freight, for it involves a contrast between the weak and the strong, between the oppressive actions of the state and the plight of these who are oppressed. Although the discourse of law and order is very strong within UK society, the ‘baiting’ of student demonstrators to acts of destruction will not generate the kinds of charged images that were produced by confrontations between civil rights activists and police in Alabama, or more recently by confrontations between unarmed Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Moreover the resulting images of student ‘violence’ might be having the opposite effect to the one intended by the police. Instead of delegitimizing the student campaign these images might well be strengthening the position of the students, not only because they appear to have increased media attention on the demonstrations, but also because they have made manifest the degree of anger involved in the opposition to the government cuts. In this sense the ‘violence’ staged by the police may work against them.
Those who oppose the cuts need to focus their energies upon keeping the quiet destructiveness of government policy within the public field of vision. This will require the clever development of argument against this policy. It will also perhaps require strategies to manage the conditions under which the police stage violence for the media. Yet it might also require opponents of the cuts acting in ways that make their anger visually apparent, acts that to be effective will need to border on the de-legitimization of their cause. How else will it be possible to show just how angry people feel about being betrayed by their supposed political representatives and over the destruction of what remains of a welfare system that has been a familiar and expected part of the social contract for nearly three generations?